A Letter to the One Returning Home {for Velvet Ashes}

Seven years ago, with all my earthly belongings bundled into two 50 pound suitcases, I flagged my last taxi to the airport. I dozed on the 13 hour flight arcing over the North Pole to return back to the U.S. after living in China for five years. I was returning home.

If you are preparing to leave or floundering to find your footing back home, then this letter is for you.

To the One Returning Home,

Like a transplanted lilac bush, you are being uprooted. Roots severed, your heart, mind and body are undergoing the silent trauma of displacement. You feel lost, alone and out of sorts. You are a misfit in a place where you should belong. Home is now a wild and unfamiliar landscape.

Like a woman’s body after giving birth, you are forever altered. Even when back to your original weight, your body mass has shifted with the weight of new life, your skin stretched to capacity and back. And yet perhaps only you will notice the difference. Some will never know the life you birthed abroad and how it transformed you. People will want you to wear the same clothes, but they no longer fit.

You carry hidden scars and surprising superpowers. You suffered in large and small ways. But you also celebrated. The first time you were able to tell the shopkeeper exactly what color fabric you wanted to buy, the first time you went across town in a taxi alone or the time you finally detected a spark of something you doubted would ever happen cross-culturally—true friendship. You developed competency in a foreign culture. By the end of year three, you dared say it. You were thriving.

But now your gifts are useless. You no longer need to barter for every item you buy. You don’t need to know where to get your umbrella spokes repaired, your socks darned or how to cook without cheese or butter. Your language skills and cultural expertise are wasted. You cry the first time someone asks you, “So are you using the language you learned?” Because you fear you never will again.

You feel guilty. You believed living abroad was the pinnacle of faith for a person completely “sold out and radical” for Jesus. Even on the hard days, knowing your sacrifice brought a smile to God’s face spurred you on. But now you can’t wave The High Calling Banner everywhere you go. You are just ordinary you.

And you have unspoken questions. Will God love you as much? Will the people who know you admire you? Will you keep loving yourself when you are “just” a teacher, mother, accountant, engineer or computer programmer?

Will your faith survive being transplanted from foreign soil to familiar land?

Garden experts advise you not to prune a lilac bush that is being transplanted. But a person going through re-entry experiences the pain of simultaneously being pruned and replanted. You will survive, but your growth may be stunted for a time. In fact, the garden manuals warn it may take up to five years for a lilac bush to bloom again. This rate of new growth will frustrate you.

But you need to grieve. You may cry every day at first. This is normal. You have mourning to do. You’ve left behind stand-in mothers, fathers, grannies, grandpas, aunties, uncles, sisters and brothers. They adopted you and were the fulfillment of God’s promise to you to “put the lonely in families.”

Perhaps you are leaving spiritual children behind. You bumbled and fumbled with language, but trusted God would speak. And He did. You saw lives transformed by God working in spite of you. A transplanted lilac bush inevitably leaves some roots behind. You will need to mourn the parts of you that will stay in your foreign country. Not every piece of you will return …

Continue reading at Velvet Ashes.

Day 26: The White Savior Complex {31 Days of #WOKE}

 

At first, she was scared of my white skin. But I know we will learn each other. We are bound together by spirit and our humanity. And now, by cloth. I feel like mothering all of this country's children. I was chosen for this! #babygotback #mybackthatis #tickettoride #morningworkout #trim4Him #squatdatot #notmybaby #yet
barbiesavior At first, she was scared of my white skin. But I know we will learn each other. We are bound together by spirit and our humanity. And now, by cloth. I feel like mothering all of this country’s children. I was chosen for this! #babygotback #mybackthatis #tickettoride #morningworkout #trim4Him #squatdatot #notmybaby #yet

In her recent memoir, Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World, former missionary Amy Peterson proposes that it is time to retire the word “missionary.” Why? Perhaps because the word carries vestiges of imperialism, colonialism and the white man conforming the “heathen” to his culture and way of life. It also perpetuates the white savior complex where the white person swoops in to save the day such as in films like Dangerous Minds, Avatar, The Blind Side and The Help. (Which I tried and failed to do my first year teaching in the inner city.)

A popular Instagram account, called Barbie Savior, capitalizes on this theme, showing a Barbie doll in a variety of exotic settings followed by humorous hashtags: #imagiver #igivetopeople #andijustkeepgiving #justlikethegivingtree #exceptiambetter #thesetshirtsaresohotrightnow

The word “missionary” is certainly a loaded word.

Our new church is taking a short term missions trip this summer. Equal parts of me groaned, but also longed to take off for a week this summer to travel to Nicaragua. As someone who has been on short, medium and long-term missions trips, here’s my take on the matter of missions.

On a 5-week trip to Tajikistan in 2004.

1. Short-termers can do a lot of harm.

I won’t harp on this, but when you go into a place without knowing the culture or language, you can create a lot of chaos. (Read The Poisonwood Bible for many examples of what NOT to do—this should be required reading for missionary hopefuls. Also, see my post on The Problem with the Wordless Book.) Many short-termers go on trips to build churches or other structures, but in reality know nothing about building and take jobs away from locals.

Sometimes short-term trips can harm the work of the full-time missionaries. I lived in a remote area of China that had a very large Muslim people group. We had numerous Christian groups come through and talk to Imams at the Mosques and people throughout town, then leave us in a wake of new suspicion from the government. Being a Communist country where missionaries were not allowed, this behavior put our positions at risk. In addition to this, hosting large groups of short-termers can distract long-termers from the work they need to be doing and be very draining. Planning for meals, rides, accommodations and work all while using another language in another country is a lot of work for the long-term missionary.

On a one-week trip to Central America.

2. In spite of this, there is still value in doing short-term trips.

I decided to go into full-time missions because of a short-term mission trip I took with my youth group when I was 16 years old. I don’t think I would have made that decision otherwise. I now see short-term trips more as “vision trips” than anything else. They are an amazing opportunity to expand your worldview and see firsthand what God is doing in other cultures around the world. Even though they can be very expensive, I think this window into another world has life-long implications for westerners experiencing an entirely different way of life. Because of this, I would still encourage anyone to go on a short-term trip.

3. Long-term is better.

Any sort of sustainable mission work is only sustainable because of the longevity of the relationships built over months and years of trust. Learning the nuances of language and culture takes more than a week-long crash course. It requires being immersed for a long period of time. Once you have survived the waves of culture shock, you can begin the hard and sometimes life-long work of making friends and earning a right to share your faith or introduce new ideas for community development.

4. Empowering locals is best.

I still think local people are usually more effective at helping those within a culture than a foreigner would be. Many missions organizations now have this view of training local people and working themselves out of job. This is a broad statement and dependent on the kind of work, but a Chinese can best explain the Bible to another Chinese. A Ugandan will trust another Ugandan more than a white face. And a Nicaraguan will understand where to buy building materials, communicate with contractors and how to complete work on a project in cheaper, more effective ways than a white missionary.

***

Our Spiritual Hierarchy

Those in the church need to be careful about creating hierarchies within Christianity. Growing up, I believed missionaries were at the top of the spiritual hierarchy, then pastors and those involved in domestic full-time ministry. So naturally bankers, construction workers, servers and stay-at-home moms were at the bottom of the spiritual totem pole. You can read more about my journey stepping off the missionary pedestal here and here.

Youth groups and college ministries often perpetuate this myth of the missionary hero as they play intense music, show emotionally moving films and then follow with messages about not wasting your life by getting a normal job and buying a house when you could do the real kingdom work and be a missionary. Why would you want to waste your life when you could make your life count for God?

Now I realize the danger in emotionalizing the call into missions. Many people are on the mission field who do not belong there. And if there were less sensationalism surrounding missions, perhaps the average person might actually be able to see themselves there after all.

I still have a love for other cultures, languages and countries. I would still rather go than stay, but I also know that the subject of missions is not as simple a topic as I once believed.

Amy Peterson concludes: “The word missionary has become more problematic than helpful. Instead of describing reality, it blurs our vision and limits our imaginations. It has outlived its usefulness, and I vote we give it a proper burial” (Dangerous Territory p. 207).

I have to agree.

***

Have you ever done a short term missions trip? What did you learn?

In what way did your “whiteness” impact your ministry positively and/or negatively?

 

New to the Series? Start HERE (though you can jump in at any point!).

A 31 Day Series Exploring Whiteness and Racial Perspectives

During the month of March, 2017, I will be sharing a series called 31 Days of #Woke. I’ll be doing some personal excavating of views of race I’ve developed through being in schools that were under court order to be integrated, teaching in an all black school as well as in diverse classrooms in Chicago and my experiences of whiteness living in Uganda and China. I’ll also have some people of color share their views and experiences of race in the United States (I still have some open spots, so contact me if you are a person of color who wants to share). So check back and join in the conversation. You are welcome in this space.

Image: Barbie Savior Instagram

**Contains Amazon affiliate links

Day 20: The Problem with the Wordless Book {31 Days of #WOKE}

“The black represents sin, red is the blood of Jesus, which brings us to the next bead—white, when we are washed clean of our sin.”

We sat in pairs and prepared to share the gospel by color. I was 16 and going on my first mission trip to Costa Rica. Our church youth group had practiced our mime for months—an allegory of the story of Jesus–and our bags were loaded with extra Bibles in Spanish. We all memorized some basic Spanish so we could share the gospel as we gave away bracelets with colored beads, called “Power Bands.”

This method of evangelism, a bracelet version of the “Wordless Book” has been an evangelistic tool since the end of the nineteenth century. It is said to have been invented by the famous English preacher, Charles Spurgeon. In this method, each color represents an aspect of the gospel. The Teen Missions website gives the following guide:

Each color of the Wordless Book / Wordless Bracelet represents an important Bible truth about Salvation

BLACKSin  Romans 3:23 | All have sinned

RED Blood  I John 1:7 | Jesus’ blood covers all sin

WHITE Pure Psalm 51:7 | Jesus washes away confessed sin

YELLOW Heaven John 14:2 | Believe on Jesus and receive Eternal Life

GREEN Grow 2 Peter 3:18 | Grow in the knowledge of the Lord

In a sermon delivered in 1866, Spurgeon read the verse : “Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.” (Ps. 51:7), then shared:

“There is something about this in the text, for the person who used this prayer said, “Wash me,” so he was black and needed to be washed; and the blackness was of such a peculiar kind that a miracle was needed to cleanse it away, so that the one who had been black would become white, and so white that he would be “whiter than snow.”

If I were in the presence of an African American as this sermon was delivered, I would certainly be cringing every time the word “black” was spoken.

The imagery of purity being associated with the color white and sin or evil being associated with the color black is commonplace in western culture. But what is happening at the level of our subconscious when we associate “black” with sin and “white” with purity and then turn around and categorize one another as “white” and “black”?

I can hear the naysayers now:

“Don’t be so touchy.”

“Does everything have to be about race?”

But as a mother, I have to wonder what my children internalize when they are taught that black is sin and white is purity.  Which color would you rather be?

Perhaps it is time to abandon the Wordless Book.

If you were (or are) a person of color, how would it make you feel to sing the following song (as is recommended by websites advocating the Wordless Book):

“Wordless Book” Song by Frances M. Johnston

(Show the colors as you sing.) 

(Black) My heart was dark with sin until the Savior came in.

(Red) His precious blood I know

(White) Has washed it white as snow.

(Gold) And in His Word I’m told I’ll walk the streets of gold.

(Green) To grow in Christ each day I read the Bible and pray.

Along with the fact that this method implies that black is bad and white is good, another problem with the Wordless Book is that our associations with color are not universal. When I lived in China, for example, I learned that white is the color of death and used in funerals and red symbolizes good fortune. In this regard, short term missionaries can sometimes do more harm than good when they fail to study language and culture before trying to share Christ in a foreign land.

We can do damage when we assume our western symbols are universal. Using the Wordless Book in a place like China would be nothing more than confusing (which is interesting since according to Wikipedia at least, it was used by China Inland Mission and missionary Hudson Taylor in China).

Open-air preaching in China using the Wordless Book

So what are some alternatives?

Rather than using colors, some people use the metaphors of being “dirty” and “clean,” utilizing object lessons like a dirty T-shirt washed clean to present the truth of salvation. Another alternative is to use the more biblical language of “light” and “darkness” when talking about sin and salvation. Though the Bible uses the word “white” in reference to purity, it never uses the word “black” to describe sin. The closest the Bible comes to color-coding sin is in Isaiah 1:18 that says “Though your sins be like scarlet, they shall be white as snow.”

God can and does use even our faulty methods to share His love. But if there is any chance that our methods offend, confuse, belittle or perpetuate stereotypes, then perhaps we should abandon them for the sake of unity.

New to the Series? Start HERE (though you can jump in at any point!).

A 31 Day Series Exploring Whiteness and Racial Perspectives

During the month of March, 2017, I will be sharing a series called 31 Days of #Woke. I’ll be doing some personal excavating of views of race I’ve developed through being in schools that were under court order to be integrated, teaching in an all black school as well as in diverse classrooms in Chicago and my experiences of whiteness living in Uganda and China. I’ll also have some people of color share their views and experiences of race in the United States (I still have some open spots, so contact me if you are a person of color who wants to share). So check back and join in the conversation. You are welcome in this space.

 

Images: 1) Bracelets  2) Open-air preaching in China

I Tried to Run Away from Love {for (in)courage}

My Love Story

The first time I ever had a date on Valentine’s Day, I was 31 years old. It ended up being the hinge upon which my entire life turned.

Wildly independent, when other girls in college were hoping to snag a man and get their ring by spring, I turned my nose up at them, determined to do something “more” with my life. I wasn’t going to tie myself to a man who would hold me back from all God had planned for me (and I was sure I was destined for Christian Rockstar status).

And so I successfully avoided serious relationships, teaching in the inner city of Chicago and then moving to China to teach English and study Chinese. Although I was lonely at times, I was sure God could bring me a man who was also called to the same area of China I was if that was what He wanted. Until then, I could make singleness work.

But in the middle of my fifth year in China, I was blindsided.

I returned to the states for a wedding and “happened” to carpool with a guy on the way to a lake cottage with a group of friends for the weekend. Convinced God wanted me to marry a man also called overseas, I ignored my growing attraction to this guy with the piercing blue eyes and baritone voice—an actor in Chicago—at least until the ride home.

Oh no, I thought as we talked, laughed, and connected like old friends at the end of the weekend. As we dropped him off, he asked for my phone number and wasted little time in making sure we spent hours “hanging out” over the next two weeks before I flew back to China.

He asked me out for Valentine’s Day the night before I was supposed to leave. Cradling cappuccinos, we finally talked about “us.” What were we doing and what were we going to do?

He had plans—had researched—how to do long distance relationships well. Over Skype we could read books, watch movies, have “dates,” and even play computer games simultaneously. He would come visit me in China, of course.

And he did.

We got engaged after four months of a long-distance relationship where we talked for five hours every other day, read books together and wrote letters, then scanned them in because letters seemed more authentic than emails which could be overly polished. We were married by the following Valentine’s Day.

As I feared, marriage and missions have been mutually exclusive for me. This year is the seventh Valentine’s we are spending together and we’ll most likely get a babysitter for our three littles so we can have an hour or two of peace together involving pasta, candlelight, and coffee.

Our life is not radical, exotic or original, but our love is real and I have no doubt it was God’s intention to derail my pretty plans for myself in favor of blowing me away with His plans for me …

Continue reading at (In)Courage.

 

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No Longer Heaven’s Hero {review of ‘Dangerous Territory’ + Book Giveaway}

Who wouldn’t want to be heaven’s hero? Why would anyone willingly choose the “white picket fence” life over an exotic life guaranteed to be exciting and eternally meaningful? And if giving up everything to move across the world is clearly more holy, why would anyone claiming to love Jesus choose anything less?

That’s what I used to think, so I was delighted to find I wasn’t alone.

Amy Peterson’s debut book, Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World, is a memoir about the two years she lived in Southeast Asia and the fallout she experienced after sharing her faith in a country closed to evangelism. With clarity, poetry and engaging story-telling, Amy chronicles the deconstruction and reconstruction of her faith after her idealism is obliterated.

With an academic background in intercultural studies, Amy weaves the history of missions and cultural analysis throughout the book, occasionally interrupting her narrative with fascinating essays about missions. Zooming out from her story during these brief interludes allows the reader to position Amy’s personal narrative into the larger picture puzzle of missions, past and present.

As a writer over fifteen years later, Amy regards her younger, idealistic self with the mercy of a wise mentor, neither criticizing nor judging, but sharing her thoughts as she remembers them. She gently offers her reader a glimpse into some fallacies young Jesus-followers can fall prey to. She also challenges many assumptions about Christian life, ministry and missions made by the church at large. Amy transparently shares her personal grief, loss, hope and doubt in hopes the reader will take her hand on the road and learn right along with her.

***

Though I was sent to China instead of Southeast Asia, reading Amy’s book was like viewing a stranger through a window and mistaking her for myself. Our stories bear so much resemblance, Amy saved me hours I might have spent writing a very similar book.

I was with the same organization, lived in a very remote area with one teammate, completed the same masters program, spent time at the same places in Thailand during our yearly conference and had crushes on boys in my program (though not the same ones). I also walked away from my time overseas with more questions than answers. After five years in China, I—a goer with no intention of staying in the states–returned home to get married and give up my status as Church Darling. The missionary invitations, inquiries and special treatment stopped abruptly and—like Amy—I wondered, “What if God didn’t want me to be useful? Could I surrender to that? Was I willing to be useless for God?” (182).

It’s humbling to give up our “heaven’s hero” status when we feel we’re stepping into the status quo.

But I have come to similar conclusions in my quest for a special calling, purpose and meaningful life. Namely, that our calling begins and ends with love. Our first call isn’t to China, Africa, Southeast Asia, missions, marriage or motherhood. Our primary calling is to intimacy with Jesus Christ. All other callings will fade, shift, surge and grow through the seasons of our life, but that calling will sustain us for our entire lives and even beyond.

***

If you or someone you know is interested in spending any amount of time overseas, I would highly recommend this book as a vulnerable account of a modern day twenty-something (not an overly-romanticized missionary biography), who left home with good intentions and returned with a greater awareness of the fact that she wasn’t loved more because she was willing to go, but began and ended as an adored child of God.

Or perhaps you feel that going abroad is only for the holy? Although Amy clearly had a strong faith, her story reveals that God doesn’t send heroes, he sends the ordinary. He sends the willing. And He sends them not to change the world, but to catch a glimpse of His love for the world first-hand. In her conclusion, Amy admonishes missionary-hopefuls: “Don’t go because you want to save the world—go because you want to learn to love it. Go because you know that you are loved” (217).

***

I have an extra copy of Amy’s book that I would love to share with you! Leave a thoughtful comment on this post sometime between 2/7/17 and 2/14/17 (by midnight, U.S. Mountain Time) and I’ll enter you to win a free copy of Dangerous Territory. I’ll announce the winner on 2/15/17 and get it in the mail to you ASAP!

Have you ever been on a quest to save the world? How did that work out for you?

~Leslie

BUY THE BOOK HERE. (Right now it is only available on Kindle, but print copies should be available soon.)